The Upside-Down Kingdom: Where the Last are First
Rev. Leta Arndt Behrens
Sermon Scripture: HEBREWS 4:12-16
12Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.
14Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 15For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
I have the honor and privilege of getting to bring my four year old nephew to preschool here at Our Saviour’s. He is the baby you all prayed for when he was in the process of being born and in the NICU. You brought meals to his family, words of comfort to me, and a steady word of grace and prayer throughout that difficult time four years ago. And today while he is small, he is mighty. Especially his attitude! I use his full name at least five times every time I am with him–Greyson Lee… try that again. Greyson’s siblings and closest cousins are all teenagers, so, Greyson’s world is one that has some extremes–he has wonderful preschool friends and education… and he has a lot of time with siblings and cousins more than ten years older than him, who adore him and yet can do a lot of things he is not quite ready for. As all young children, Greyson wants to do this MYSELF… He is just pretty sure he is bigger and stronger than anyone else his age. This week, Greyson was with myself and John my 14 year old for an afternoon. We got in the car and insisted that he could buckle his carseat himself. We are pretty patient, not in a big hurry… But he was not going to be able to do this one himself. His hands just are not strong enough yet. So John, probably the most patient and compassionate, said, ‘well the first step is for me to hold this part still. Then you can push that buckle hard and it will click.’ So with John pushing up from the bottom and Greyson pushing hard from the top, the seatbelt clicked. Greyson exclaimed proudly, “See I do it myself!” … However the first step in that was accepting help from his older cousin.
Consider some first steps in your life. Some are exciting, or at least satisfying, like this one was for Greyson–first steps of baby learning to walk, first step into a new home you have worked hard for, first step into a new college or career you have been educated for, first step into a partnership or a new family. And some first steps are quite scary or a mix of emotions–first step into a new school or new job, first step into a new town or family. And then there are first steps we have to convince ourselves to take because they are beyond our comprehension of our life–the first step into an AA or Al-Anon meeting, first step into a cancer center for treatment or the NICU with a newborn, first step in calling the counselor or walking into a mental health clinic, first step into giving up some of what we have or control and giving it away in the name of faith.
This is the kind of first step I imagine the young wealthy man in Jesus’ story was taking. All the scripture tells us is that he left grieving and in shock. We don’t know if he was grieving because he knew there was no way he could give all these things up or if he was grieving because he had decided to give them up. We don’t know if he came back or told stories of Jesus or showed up to stand at the foot of the cross. We don’t know if he heard the resurrection news or if his life changed one way or another after that day. What we do know is that when Jesus answered this man, he was answering his bigger question of what is hindering him from a full of experience of God and as Jesus answered, He looked at him and LOVED him–first. This is only one of three times in this gospel that Jesus looks upon someone with love specifically and it is a stand out moment. This man knew the commandments. He knew the law. He knew that Jesus was a way to light and life. And he really believed that there was something he could, should do, had to do, in order to make this promise come about for him.
And here is where we can get stuck. We want to manage this story. Explain that Jesus didn’t really mean that, at least not globally and not for all of us. We want to list all kinds of caveats and exceptions–managing your wealth is good stewardship, everyone giving everything away in a society is not healthy for the common good, Jesus was exaggerating to get their attention, to get our attention. And then Jesus goes on to confuse the issue even more–why should it be more difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God? What is this about a camel and the eye of a needle? How can Jesus say who is last is first and who is first last–what does that logic even mean–are we to imagine a line into the gates of heaven where the last person keeps rotating and those who arrived ahead can never get in? There must be a loophole somewhere, somehow for us to… Well for us to do it … “by myself’!
And that is precisely the issue Jesus is addressing. A camel going through the eye of a needle, whether it is a sewing needle or a narrow gate into the city, no matter how you turn this image, it’s still something that is not possible. When we push back on this text, the text hold steady and pushes up and back on us and for us to open up the new promise that Jesus keeps delivering–God is here and it is in and through God that the promises of grace and life are made the least bit possible. In other words the most upside down part for most of us to get used to is that finally God, in this scripture and in the promises is the subject, is the one acting all around us.
Recognizing this is the first, and maybe the most difficult, step and it’s a first step we get called back to again and again. The life of faith is never done, our learning and relearning and taking first steps in faith and first steps in life together isn’t finished at confirmation or when we read the whole bible in a year or even when we take classes or become ordained. The life of faith is always a re-learning, re-engaging, and invitation to take a closer look at our spirits, our actions, and how we talk and walk this path as a Christian.
That first step shows us that being in an upside down kingdom is about transformation and change. It’s about examining what we do have, what first steps we are taking, and the ones we are avoiding. We need continual reminders that we are not called to hold back our gifts, but to open them up and let them be used and bring light to the world. All those things that hinder us must be the the things we let go of to take those first steps in faith. First steps can be exciting like getting your first Bible, creating a welcoming space, or meeting new friends in our church community. First steps can be mixed- as we look to the future of our building and to the future of how we engage faith together and invest intentionally in the community and world us together. First steps can be scary, like taking that step to teach a sunday school class or mentor a confirmation youth or take 10 minutes a day to the daily devotion or give away more of your resources than you have been willing or able to before.
First steps are all about putting God s the subject in our lives so that they are centered around grace and love for ourselves and others. And our Actions of putting God as the subject don’t take away our responsibility. One thing we can do as we look at our world today is to respond in God’s name to the crisis in Florida–as we pray and hope and join our thoughts and hearts with those experiencing so much loss, we can join our resources as well in supporting Lutheran Disaster response. This organization is a response of our faith together- we step into the world together claiming our identity as Christians and our ability to come into crisis with our funds, our hands, and our prayers, connecting and bringing the light of Christ with these kind of first steps.
To all of these first steps and the ones you are called to in your life, Jesus’ final word is to bring hope. Even as you are called into these and number of steps–you are not called to do them all by yourself, nor can you. The grace of God is the assurance that as God gazes on you with love… and there is transformation. Transformation in spirit, in mind, in body, in actions. All these things are a part of the daily living with God and all are real in life with God and even already happening all around you and with you. “Truly, I tell you,” Jesus promises, “ I tell you that no one who has taken these first steps for my sake and for the sake of the good news of grace and love will be left out or alone, no matter where you are in life, no matter what step you are on, no matter if you are on your first or your last step, God is here and with you all the way.” Thanks be to God. May it be so.